Q: I am a recent college grad and am interested in riding professionally and one day having my own training program. I applied for a bunch of working student positions in Europe during the school year and just received an offer in Belgium. I am definitely interested in accepting the position, but I’ve never worked or shown in Europe before. What can I expect?
A: Mavis Spencer
“Speaking from personal experience, when I went over and worked for Neil Jones [in Belgium], I had no expectations. I think that was the biggest thing. I didn’t go over thinking that I was too good to do anything. I walked into the barn the first day and basically was told that I was going to be mostly grooming, and that I might have a horse or two to ride.
For me, I wasn’t really that bothered by it, because it was just being in that atmosphere and that environment that was going to give me the opportunity to learn. Even if you’re not necessarily doing it yourself, I’m a big believer that being on the ground and being around what’s going on, you can learn.
I think being in a busy barn like that—the way they do it in Europe in the top barns—it isn’t that different from the way we do it over here. But, for sure, the level and numbers in which they do it are a lot different. I remember the first mare Neil gave me to ride was coming back from taking embryos or something like that. She was basically getting fit again because they had given her a bit of time off and she hadn’t jumped in a while. She had no mouth and was not really nice to ride, but I was just happy to have a horse that I was sitting on and I made the most of it.
I jumped her over a few fences, and by no means was it very pretty, but I was just so happy to have been given that opportunity. Because she was a little bit miserable, everyone else was like, ‘That can be your project!’ and after a couple of days, she started getting better. I started doing a little more, and I think if you put an effort in, people notice that.
Two weeks later, the rider was home from a show and he gave me a lesson. We jumped her and he said, ‘Wow, she looks really good,’ and we did a little bit more the next day. The following week, I was able to have another lesson and jump a little bit bigger. A week after that, I took her to a training show and sort of in the meantime—I think because I had thrown myself fully into trying to do the best that I could do with making this horse better—I got a few other ones.
Obviously, you still have to deal with the barn work and that aspect of it, but I think the biggest thing is not having the mentality that you’re too good for something. Especially in Europe, everyone does everything over there. People don’t really have grooms at home all the time. That’s why I think there’s such a big freelance [grooming] community over there, because people do it themselves at home and [hire grooms for the show].
Maybe you have some help—your mom does all your entries, and maybe they have someone that comes in and cleans stalls. Probably a month in at Neil’s, I had 10 horses to ride and no groom, and all ten horses got out every single day. If I had a few that needed to go in the field, they went in the field. They got done off, and never went away with wet legs. You find a system and you find a way to make it work.
I think the biggest thing is that people appreciate when you throw yourself fully into something and you always do your best. I think if you go over there and want to just ride, everyone wants to just ride, and there are so many good riders out there that are just waiting to be given an opportunity. A little bit of it goes back to what Kent [Farrington] told me when I was younger. “If you’re not necessarily the most talented, but you want it badly enough, that always translates across and people see that.”
If you’re willing to work ten times harder than someone who is super-talented, but doesn’t really care and doesn’t show up and isn’t around, you’ll end up going further than the people who are just really talented and show up and say, ‘Oh, look, I won that class,’ and then you don’t see them again for two weeks. The work you put in shows in the results you get out of it and the opportunities that you create for yourself.
People in Europe, when I went over there, they told me that all the international horses went in bandages when they worked. Ivan, the rider at the time, asked me to get one of his horses ready. I started putting bandages on it, and they were like, ‘What are you doing?’, and literally watched me put polos on. I said, ‘You told me they went in bandages, so I’m bandaging it,’ and they were like ‘Okay, you know what you’re doing.’
The biggest disservice you can do for yourself is to go over there and not at least have a basic knowledge. They literally watched me clean stalls the first day, because I told them I can muck out a stall, but there’s this idea that Americans don’t always have that foundation.
In Europe, I always joked that I was born in a barn, but I literally was. The first thing I learned when I came out to the stable was how to tack up my pony and why I was using the tack that I was using, and how to put it together, what functions it had and stuff like that. I think that’s definitely a little bit lost sometimes [in the States]. That being said, if you want to have the most opportunity when you go to Europe, I think you have to help yourself. At least have some sort of foundation to go off of because there’s nothing worse than when you show up over there and they have to feel like they’re babysitting you, or that you can’t do something.
It’s not necessarily that you have to have all of the knowledge, but if you at least have the foundation and a desire to learn, and you have a good work ethic, then that’s going to create opportunities for you right in itself. I think the biggest thing is not having too many expectations going in. Don’t think, This is what I want to do and if I can’t, then I don’t want to do it. It doesn’t work like that. Those top riding jobs don’t exist, they’re created for people. Everyone started somewhere.
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